Recognition by Popular Science magazine shows how far the technology has come, and where its headed

We use the term mainstream in reference to many things; music, movies, news media and so on. Its not often that you refer to a particular technology as mainstream, mainly because of the marketing dollars dedicated to consumer electronics. The prevalence of information available online and elsewhere makes it difficult to keep new innovations a secret.

Niche products like laser scanners are a different story. The size, complexity and cost of these and similar LiDAR technologies have kept the devices concentrated with small groups of forward-thinking surveyors, forensic investigators and contractors. However, a recent trend towards shrinking and simplifying laser scanners has made them more accessible to the masses. Its a slow migration of the devices from the business-to-business, industrial space into the light commercial space.

Earlier this month, Popular Science magazine recognized the FARO Laser Scanner Focus3D with a Best of Whats New award for its use in forensic investigations by small police departments. Its an interesting juxtaposition for the technology, to be listed along with tablet computers and cell phones, but it shows the degree to which its diffusing into the marketplace.

FARO did not begin development of the Focus3D with a Best of Whats New award in mind. Rather, the company sought to shrink the size and cost of the device and broaden its appeal to customers outside of traditional user groups. The company set about this in two distinct ways: internalization of certain manufacturing processes that had traditionally been outsourced, and an extensive amount of simulation (both virtual and with physical prototypes) to ensure the newer and smaller parts worked together in unison.

Like many manufacturers, FARO outsources some of the component parts to its products from suppliers throughout the U.S. and abroad. In doing so, FARO works extensively with these suppliers to ensure each component meets their standards. But, even the largest manufacturer is at the mercy of the technology thats available in the marketplace.

Instead of procuring many of the complicated and more expensive parts included in the Focus3D the inclination sensor for example FARO reverse-engineered them to the component level. In the example of the inclination sensor, which might only be available on the open market in specific sizes, FARO engineers began with a chip and worked forward to build the necessary electronics around it that would allow full functionality in a smaller package. In this case, technology not only shrank, but became denser. The FARO team utilized flexible PCB boards with up to 10 layers (as opposed to 5 or 6 layer boards) to increase the surface area for circuitry inside the Focus3D. Flash memory reduced space for hard disks and an elimination of mechanically interchangeable sensors (think lenses on an SLR camera) meant less space was needed inside the products housing. Engineers also switched from a metal housing to molded plastic, which resulted in a lighter-weight design that could accommodate more circuitry than prior generations of laser scanners.

Like most scanners, the Focus3D consists of many diverse technologies, mechanical parts, electronics, firmware and software working in unison to create a finished product. Prior to embarking on the new design, FARO engineers employed extensive simulation of each of the scanners systems, so theyd know how it worked before a prototype was ever conceived. CAD software was used to understand how each of the Focus components would fit into the new, smaller case. Redesigned optical components fit against and between PCB boards in best-fit simulations. After CAD simulation, 3D printers were used to develop a physical model of the unit. FARO engineers tested the performance of the modeled units and then built actual components for comparison. These prototyped components were tested against the simulation of how they should perform. From this analysis, deviations were analyzed and corrections made to the part for re-simulation. This process of model, build, test, re-model was repeated over and over for all new components until eventually, final working designs were created.

The result of all of this engineering and re-engineering is the Focus3D Laser Scanner. By internalizing much of the manufacturing and reducing the number of moving parts in the unit, cost for the Focus was cut significantly from prior generations of scanner. FARO presented their product to the Popular Science editorial team in May of this year for review and possible inclusion in their Best of Whats New edition. The PopSci team even requested their own scanner to demo themselves.

The simplified interface allowed relative newcomers to scanning (the editorial team) the opportunity to use the Focus and understand the benefits of laser scanning technology. In September, the FARO team was informed that they were among the 100 winners chosen from thousands of applicants for the award. Its an indication of how far laser scanning has come from heavy and complicated units that required two or three crates to transport, to a unit that can be carried on an airplane and stored in a backpack. Smaller and less expensive units are certainly in the cards. It might be long before laser scanners are available at your local big box storeright next to the MP3 players.

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